A couple summers ago, inspired by many blog posts I’d read on the benefits of solo travel, I booked myself a 5 day getaway to Belgium. I was in Spain for the summer and I think Brussels was one of the cheapest flights I could find, plus I’d always wanted to see Brugge, so off I went. Not used to going to a destination where I wouldn’t know anyone, I had a mini panic attack about how I would meet people. I’ve found I’m not alone in this.
When most people hear that I travel to other countries by myself they throw around words like, “brave, courageous, strong, sexy”… ok maybe not that last one, but it would be nice to hear. I always laugh at those labels because I know that really it’s more like, “simply tired of waiting on others, selfish and want to do only what I want, terrified of being lonely.” Most of my first day in Brussels was spent taking the wrong tram all the way to the end of the line, figuring it out and going all the way back, and in turn, curling up in my bed when I finally found my Airbnb, wanting to sleep the rest of my trip away because I was so mad at myself for being unable to read a simple public transportation map correctly, and freaking out at the thought of wandering around a new city by myself. Luckily, after a short nap, I pep talked myself into “getting out there,” and I’m so glad I did!
Since that trip, I’ve taken a few others on my own, and what follows are a few “tricks” I’ve learned for easily meeting people, should you find yourself lonely and wanting the company of others.
1. Stay in a hostel. I’m aware that I’m now in my 30s and getting past the age that hostels are really acceptable, but I actually never did hostels in my 20s, so I feel kind of like now is my time to do them. In a hostel, you are sharing all sorts of things with people that you wouldn’t have the chance to share in a hotel or airbnb. I LOVED the hostel I stayed at on the Isle of Skye, mainly because of all the people I got to share it with. I didn’t even speak to half of them, but just having them around made me feel cozy. I did speak to some of them though, and was pumped when two of the guys turned out to be from Girona, just north of Barcelona. We bonded over bad-mouthing the crazy Scottish drivers, and longings for jamón. I also bonded with a cute little adventurous family staying there, over an event I will speak about in more detail in number 3.
Many times hostels have built in events, like pub crawls or neighborhood walks, and this is a great way to meet other travelers, and have a built in group of fellow adventurers. Meeting people is hard. Let the hostel take the work out of it for you.
2. Sit by yourself at a bar. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Brussels was because I wanted to go to Delirium Village. This is a little alley of bars that are all based around Delirium Tremens (the pink elephant beer). The main bar in the “village” has the Guinness world record for most beers offered, at over 2400! (They literally hand you a glossy catalog of beers to choose from when you walk in. It is insane!) Anyway, I hoped against hope that someone would talk to me there and I wouldn’t be by myself all night, and lo and behold, someone did. A weird Indian guy that was sitting 2 stools down and eating a giant bowl full of cheese cubes. Out of nowhere he offered me one, and though cheese is one of my favorite things, I was beginning to regret my hoping someone would talk to me. He wouldn’t stop talking, and I figured I would just finish my beer and leave. Thankfully, François approached me.
I don’t know how, or why, but this tall, distinguished looking gentleman with salt and pepper hair, and a full suit, came up to me, back to the Indian guy (who was mid-sentence), and said in a gorgeous French accent, “You would like to join me and my friend, no?” And just like that I became friends with 2 French guys, and later 2 Dutch guys that joined them, and had an unforgettable night.
3. Sit by yourself in a café, in the middle of the day. (This one might only work in Portree, Scotland where a drunk named “Angus” roams around, but I had to include it, just in case it works elsewhere.)
There was one place to eat that was open in Portree, aptly named “The Café,” so I went in and took a booth. The place was pretty empty, but within 10 minutes of me sitting down it was packed, and there were people waiting. There was a small table for 2 by the front window, so I offered to take that so that a “cute little adventurous family” (see number 1) could have my booth. I’m eating my meal, and all of a sudden there’s a guy standing right on the other side of the window grinning at me, and pointing to the empty seat across from me. I was very confused, which only heightened when he entered and said, “Mind if I take a seat with you?” as he pulled out the chair and sat down, without waiting for my meek, “Um, I don’t think you should.” He ignored me and launched right into a series of questions, questions which, I would soon realize, I would answer no less than 7 times throughout our repetitious conversation. “What’s your name? Where are you from? What are your ambitions? I have a lot of ‘Be Happy’ ambitions. What do you do?” I did get a little annoyed by about the fifth round, but it was a fun little adventure maybe the first three.
4. Ask people to take your picture. One downside to solo travel is that you either have to take terrible-angled selfies, or constantly ask people to take your photo, thus highlighting your aloneness. However, I use this as an opportunity to strike up conversation. Once I was in the top of the Guinness Brewery in their 360 bar and bored out of my mind. I saw a couple guys around my age, so I went up to them and asked them to take my photo. They obliged and I then asked where they were from, what they were doing there, etc. They were from California, and ended up talking and having a beer with me for about an hour. Had I been staying longer in Dublin, I would have definitely hung out with them again.
5. Take a bike tour. This is probably my number one travel advice anywhere. I don’t care what kind of bike tour it is, just book one, or show up for one. When I was in Paris with my friend Montse (no, technically not a solo adventure), we joined a HUGE group of locals on a bike tour of Paris at night and it was 2 hours of amazingness. We just randomly found the meet up information online and rented bikes and showed up, but we were kind of a novelty in the group because we were the only non-Parisians. I’ve also done bike tours in Dublin and Athens, and loved them, and very easily and naturally met some very cool people.
6. When all else fails, just walk up to someone and ask if you can sit with them. For real. When I was in Glasgow I was feeling very lonely one night. I worked up my courage to go to a bar and get some dinner by myself, and as I walked out of the hostel and around the corner, I could see into the hostel bar, and there was one guy sitting at a table, eating dinner, watching the silent music videos flashing across the tv above him. I thought about going to talk to him, but decided that might be a creeper move. I went back and forth in my head on the issue for about two blocks before I finally just thought, “What do I have to lose??” and I turned around and marched right back into that hostel bar, walked up to him and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” (Unlike Angus, I politely waited to sit down until I was given the go ahead.) The guy looked really confused but said sure, so I ordered a beer and began conversation. Shortly into the conversation I realized this guy, who I thought was about my age, was actually TEN YEARS YOUNGER THAN ME! Ha! We had great conversation though, and I got to learn a lot about Scottish life. I was super proud of putting myself out there like that, and even if he would have told me to eff off, I still would have been proud of myself – just walking up to someone, especially in a foreign land, takes some big cojones!
Traveling solo is such an incredible, empowering experience, I’d hate for someone to miss out on it just because they are afraid of being alone for a couple days! I’ve found that most of the time, if you wait on others to go live your dreams, you’ll be waiting forever, so might as well just go blaze your own trails now!